Henry just wanted to keep Simeon guessing, working harder. He would buy the new shoes, footballs, helmets; but who else could keep Simmy in line? He made his son get to practice on his own. "If I'd have told him yes all the time, that would've overexercised his mind," Henry says. "I hated to say those things; it hurt me every time."
But Henry's acting was too good. Simeon hears that now, and he doesn't buy a word. "He'll say he did it to motivate me, but I know better," Simeon says, shaking his head at the memory. "How are you going to be motivated, if you can't even get to practice?"
At the end of Rice's junior year in exile, Lenti told him he would be playing defensive tackle. There was no argument. A coach is like a father. "I don't care," Rice replied, "I just want to play."
The next season Rice flourished. Recruiters began to sniff around. Henry wouldn't let up: You're not getting a scholarship. You're no good. Prove it to me. So in the state-championship game, Simeon did. Big hits, big plays: Simeon forced the fourth-quarter fumble that turned the game; commentators praised him. Suddenly, everything changed. When he came home, Simeon was greeted like never before. "Damn, I didn't know you were that good!" Henry said. "You won the game for them; I can't believe it!" It's strange, but Simeon couldn't get angry. He didn't want to scream, What took you so long? The words of approval showered down like gold.
"That was the happiest time of my life, right there," Simeon says. "My father was proud of me."
There was a better moment. Last December when the Illini returned to Champaign after their 30-0 win in the Liberty Bowl over East Carolina, Simeon didn't go to sleep. He climbed into the car and drove the early morning hours to Chicago. He didn't go home first, though. He drove through the icy night to the Ford plant, where Henry was working the 2 a.m. shift. His father was down on the line somewhere, piecing together wheel assemblies, so Simeon simply left some things for him: An Illinois jacket, a cap, souvenirs. Later, Simeon was thrilled to see Henry's eyes fire up talking about the other workers and how that morning they made him feel like a celebrity.
"It means everything," Rice says reflectively. "Making my father happy, that's my biggest joy. I let him down so many times. Now he's saying, 'You're my boy, you're my guy.' That feeling can't be replaced—not by my mom, my grandmother—nobody but my old man. A lot of things I do, I do for me, but when it pays off, I like to see my father. He says I'm a part of him. It's his name."
The Mercury is rolling through Champaign now, Tupac Shakur on the tape deck rapping about guns and death and the ways a city can crack apart. Simeon mouths the words to himself. He begins telling of the moment he knew he had to get out, the summer night when he and Bennie were 16 and trying to sleep, and they heard a voice behind the house: "Die you dumbass hook!" And then four gunshots, echoing off the pavement, the houses and every memory of the trouble he used to find.
"I'd hear the guns going off all night," Rice says. "Bang! Bang! Bang! Killing each other and not even caring."
He will wake up tomorrow and be healthy. That's a dead issue. That is how Dad wins.